Documentary explores ties between former communist leaders and ‘Red Star Over China’ author Edgar Snow

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/5 18:53:39

Bao Shixiu Photo: Courtesy of Bao Shixiu

A photo of Mao Zedong taken by Edgar Snow in 1936 Photo: Screenshot from the 2017 CCTV documentary Mao Zedong and Edgar Snow

 Chinese version of Red Star Over China Photo: IC


In a village yard in Northwest China in 1936, a slim-faced Chinese Red Army leader posed for a photo shoot. Facing the camera and wearing an army cap with a five-pointed star, this was the man who would later become the top leader of New China.

The above scene is from a black-and-white photo shown during Mao Zedong and Edgar Snow, a three-episode China Central Television (CCTV) documentary that was broadcast on CCTV International from June 21 to 23. This event was just one of the many valuable historical moments recorded by US journalist Edgar Snow (1905-72) - the first Western journalist to interview then Communist Party of China (CPC) leader Mao Zedong.

"Mao treated Snow as a friend and talked with him about everything during their 1936 interview," Bao Shixiu, former head of the Institute of Marxist and Mao Zedong Military Theories under the Academy of Military Science and the documentary's narrator, told the Global Times on Monday.

"Snow managed to establish an intimate private relationship with CPC leaders who later became the first generation of leaders of New China."

Offering an insight into the unusually close ties between former CPC leaders and Snow, the documentary follows Snow's first visit to the Red base that was located in northern Shaanxi Province, Northwest China, in 1936 as well as his later visits to China in 1960, 1965 and 1970 before the normalization of China-US diplomatic relations. Throughout a number of behind-the-scene details are revealed, especially concerning Snow's interview with Mao that took place over a consecutive 92 days at the Red base.

Breaking through

"Snow's 1936 interview was well-planned by both sides," said Bao, who said the interview was "an important publicity event planned by the CPC." The documentary shows how a number of important CPC members accompanied and protected Snow on his way to the Red base, where he was received by a special group led by Zhou Enlai, then an important leader in the Red Army.

The documentary comes at a relevant time as this year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Snow's Red Star Over China, the 1937 English-language work that gave the rest of the world its first peek at a real CPC base and the Red Army leaders. At the time these leaders were described as bandits "with cyan faces and tusks" by the Kuomintang, then the ruling party of China, which had been working hard to stifle the revolutionaries through military and economic blockades since 1930.

"Therefore, Snow's reports actually helped break through Kuomintang blockades by allowing the voice of Red leaders be heard by the world for the first time," Bao noted.

"Mao chose Snow for two reasons: First, Snow was not a communist and that made his reporting come across as more objective and convincing; second, as a journalist who worked for papers such as the London-based Daily Herald and the US' Saturday Evening Post, he enjoyed a good reputation," said Bao.

Recalling the turbulent days when Kuomintang-led China was besieged by Japanese forces during the 1930s and 1940s, a time when he was a student living in the French Concession in Shanghai, the 88-year-old Bao told the Global Times that for many progressive Chinese young people like he was, Snow's Red Star Over China - secretly published in Chinese under the title of Xixing Manji (lit. Records on a Journey to the West) to avoid Kuomintang censorship - was a much sought-after underground publication that also provided non-Communists in China their first true look at the CPC.

"Due to the Kuomintang ban on the book, I was only able to listen to my roommate repeat a few broken sentences from what he had read. It wasn't until after 1949 that I finally laid eyes upon a physical copy of the book," Bao said.

The official Chinese version of the book has sold more than 900,000 copies since it was first published in 1960. The newest edition of the book was published in 2016 by the People's Literature Publishing House.

Long-lasting impact

The ties between Snow and CPC leaders continued after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. From 1960 to his death in 1972, Snow paid three visits to the Chinese mainland during which time he conducted several interviews with Chinese leaders including Mao and Zhou.

He later compiled these interviews and his notes on what he had witnessed traveling around the country into his book Red China Today: The Other Side of the River. The influence of this book, however, was still overshadowed by Red Star Over China.

"Red Star Over China is irreplaceable in terms of the revolutionary ideas it conveyed to young revolutionists in China and around the world at the time," Bao told the Global Times.

According to the documentary, the book served as "a reference" for at least two former US presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and also contributed to the normalization of Sino-US relations in 1972, which Snow failed to witness as he passed away from illness just three days before Nixon's first visit to China.

Today, Snow's book is still of interest to younger generations.

"I heard about the book from my teacher and just started reading it," netizen Er Mu posted on Chinese media review site Douban.

"Snow's account is filled with humorous details and the anecdotes about the conflict of ideals that took place between him and the people he met on his way to the Red base was really entertaining."

Post-1980 Douban user Yan Lu wrote that she appreciated the book's portrayal of the "truth." 

"By reading it, I was able to get a more concrete understanding of China's past revolutions. It comes across as very objective," Yan wrote.

This objectivity is one of the main reasons that Snow and his book has been lauded in China for decades.

"Now more than ever, the sound development of Sino-US relations needs journalists like Snow whose conscience and professionalism allow them to report candidly and fearlessly," Bao said.

Newspaper headline: First look


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